Union cash floods states to combat Republican agendas

Unions poured millions of dollars into state-level battles to beat back legislation that would limit labor’s political power.

Annual financial reports filed with the Labor Department by national and local unions show they gave nearly $16 million in contributions to more than a half-dozen umbrella groups, according to a review by The Hill. 

The funds flowed into California, Indiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio and Wisconsin, and were used to battle against measures that would curb workers’ collective bargaining rights, institute right-to-work laws or limit the use of union members’ dues to pay for political activity. Many of those proposals were put forward by Republican-controlled state legislatures and GOP governors who were elected in the 2010 landslide.

The bulk of the union funds went to Ohio, a key 2012 election battleground. Close to $13.2 million went to We Are Ohio, a labor-backed group that helped lead the successful charge to overturn Senate Bill 5 — which would have restricted public workers’ collective bargaining rights — in a November 2011 referendum. 

Unions said the state-level spending has helped them hone their voter turnout machine, potentially boosting their chosen candidates — primarily Democrats — in the fall.  

Larry Scanlon, political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said the spending was necessary to protect their members.

“We look at money as a tool, as a resource,” Scanlon said. “From AFSCME’s perspective, we don’t have a national collective bargaining law. We have to go state by state to maintain our collective bargaining laws, and we have been pretty successful in doing that by using our political capital.”

Last year, AFSCME’s national headquarters gave $3 million to We Are Ohio, while some of its Ohio affiliates donated more than $157,000 to the group, according to Labor Department records.

AFSCME also gave $2 million to We Are Wisconsin, which is battling against Gov. Scott Walker (R), and another $300,000 to the Alliance for a Better California, which opposes a ballot measure that would prohibit unions from using payroll-deducted funds for political activities.

The state-level giving by unions to the issue groups fits into what some labor leaders have been saying for some time — that the labor movement needs to focus its spending on issues rather than candidates. In May 2011, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said unions planned to build campaign machines year-round that centered on issues, rather than parties or candidates. 

“For labor, it’s been a more pronounced discussion of being more issue-based. AFSCME has always been that way,” Scanlon said, noting the union has campaigned for candidates because of their stance on collective bargaining rights, civil rights and healthcare and retirement benefits.

A big test for labor will be how well it can unite behind the Democratic challenger to Walker in the June 5 recall election. The party’s primary is Tuesday; the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO has backed Kathleen Falk, and there’s also some labor support for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

“Is Barrett a perfect candidate? No. We have endorsed Falk and we think she’s the best candidate on our issues, particularly collective bargaining. But is she perfect? No. They are both better options than Scott Walker,” Scanlon said. “On Wednesday, we will come together on the plan to take out Scott Walker.”

The AFL-CIO has also been active in state-level battles. The nation’s largest labor federation gave $1.5 million to We Are Ohio last year, though that sum is likely to be greater due to accounting differences between the federation and other unions.

The AFL-CIO’s annual financial report goes from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011, and doesn’t cover any spending from 2011’s last six months. Several other unions’ reports differ and follow the calendar year.

Alison Omens, an AFL-CIO spokeswoman, said more funds have gone to groups involved in state-level battles since the end of the federation’s last annual financial report. She said those battles, epitomized by Ohio and Wisconsin, have energized union activists.

“It has allowed us to have more and more conservations about building a long-term, year-round mobilization package,” Omens said. “It has shown us that we need to be mobilized and active all the time.”

It has also allowed those groups to campaign on different issues not necessarily considered central to labor’s cause. We Are Ohio is now focusing on pushing back against a proposed right-to-work law and changes to state election law that it argues will suppress voters.

“We are continuing the organization,” said Larry Wicks, executive director of the Ohio Education Association. “Our focus with We are Ohio will continue to be issue-based.”

Wicks also serves as chairman of We Are Ohio, and his 130,000-member-strong union gave $5 million to the group last year.

While Ohio has garnered the most attention from labor, other states have seen an influx of union money.

“We pivoted to meet current challenges at the state level,” said Kevin O’Connor, assistant to the general president for governmental and political affairs at the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). “Our commitment to federal candidates is still there, but clearly we are investing a lot more in state battles.” 

The firefighters’ union put $80,000 into We Are Wisconsin last year. Its attention will be focused on the state this year as Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, runs for lieutenant governor.

The AFL-CIO’s Omens said the labor movement would not be about one race this election year.

“The same person who goes to vote for city council also votes for president. We are really building a movement that isn’t just about one race,” Omens said.